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PA Mandatory Drug Sentencing Laws May Be Unconstitutional

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In the 2013 case of Alleyne v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the question of whether a mandatory drug sentence applies in a case must go to the jury and be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  Since that time, a flurry of cases have challenged the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's mandatory drug sentencing laws.

Alleyne v. United States

In this case, the Supreme Court of the United States held that "[b]ecause mandatory minimum sentences increase the penalty for a crime, any fact that increases the mandatory minimum is an 'element' that must be submitted to the jury."  Thus, the determination of any fact - such as, whether a drug was delivered in a school zone - must be submitted to the jury as the trier-of-fact AND proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

As a result of the Alleyne decision, the application of Pennsylvania's mandatory minimum sentencing provisions for a drug delivery or possession with intent to deliver occurring in a drug-free school zone or while in possession of a firearm have been called into question. 

Thus, let's take a look at the mandatory sentencing law for drug-free school zones.

18 Pa.C.S. 6317 Drug-Free School Zones

Pursuant to 18 Pa. C.S. ยง6317:

(a) General Rule. - A person 18 years of age or older who is convicted in any court of this Commonwealth of [Drug Delivery or Possession With Intent to Deliver], shall, if the delivery or possession with intent to deliver of the controlled substance occurred within 1,000 feet of the real property on which is located a public, private or parochial school or a college or university or within 250 feet of the real property on which is located a recreation center or playground or on a school bus, be sentenced to a minimum sentence of at least two years of total confinement...

(b) Proof at Sentencing. - The provisions of this section shall not be an element of the crime... The applicability of this section shall be determined at sentencing. The court shall consider evidence presented at trial, shall afford the Commonwealth and the defendant an opportunity to present necessary additional evidence and shall determine by a preponderance of the evidence if this section is applicable.

After a cursory review of this mandatory minimum sentencing provision, we can quickly observe that the language, requirements, and application of this sentencing statute are contrary to Alleyne.

Under Alleyne, if the mandatory sentencing statute requires (1) proof of additional elements, the issue must be (2) submitted to a jury and (3) the 'elements' must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Under the PA Drug-Free School Zones law, (1) proof of the age of the defendant and the distance of the transaction or incident from a school property create additional 'elements.'  Further, the PA Statute provides that (2) the determination will be made by a judge (not jury) and (3) must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence (a burden lower than proof beyond a reasonable doubt).

Accordingly, the Drug-Free School Zones mandatory sentencing requirements are arguably in violation of Alleyne and the Sixth Amendment and, thus, unconstitutional.

The Practical Implications

In response to Alleyne, prosecutors across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are attempting to add these additional 'elements' to the Criminal Information outlining the charges against a person and then asking the court to submit the these issues to the jury (instead of the judge making the decision as the PA Statute requires).

These attempts by the prosecution to both enforce and legislate or re-write the law are being challenged.  To date, at least one court, the Lycoming Court of Common Pleas, has issued an en banc opinion holding that this mandatory minimum drug sentencing provision is unconstitutional as a whole and the prosecution cannot create its own legislative fix to the problem.  Commonwealth v. Derr, Williams.

If these sentencing laws are deemed unconstitutional, it would mean they could not be applied in any case initiated post-Alleyne and before the PA Legislature amends the mandatory drug sentencing laws to comply with Alleyne's mandates.

Defending Drug Delivery & Possession With Intent to Deliver Charges

When you have been accused of a Felony Drug Crime, you need an experienced Pennsylvania Drug Defense Lawyer knowledgeable in the laws and able to provide a multi-faceted approach to the defense of your case.

While your drug defense may begin with an evaluation of the the investigation and arrest phase to determine whether any search and seizure violations occurred, the analysis and defense of your rights continues through all phases.  An understanding of potential mandatory sentencing implications and defenses to the same could be the leverage you need whether you intend to negotiate or fight your case.

Contact an experienced and professional Harrisburg Drug Defense Attorney at Shawn Curry Law today.

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